Curtis Davies maintains missed opportunities against the Premier League’s lesser lights are to blame for Aston Villa’s slide rather than defeats against the established elite.

Back to back away reverses against Liverpool and Manchester United, combined with two successive victories for Arsenal have left Villa six points off the Champions League places.

However, Davies insists the slump is less to do with setbacks against the title challengers and more to do with failing to beat opponents from the lower reaches of the top flight.

The former West Bromwich Albion captain reckons Villa’s malaise dates back to early last month when they relinquished a two-goal lead against Stoke City to draw 2-2 at Villa Park.

Villa’s point against the Potters is the only return they have taken from their past six league matches which includes defeats to the top three, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

“The Stoke game was a very important game,” said Davies, recalling that holding on for victory against Stoke would have moved Villa eight points clear of Arsenal.

“If we won that we would have been in good stead because we knew that with Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton coming up in a row it was going to be tough to pick up maximum points.

“We knew it was important to win the games we were expected to win and unfortunately we haven’t done that against teams like Stoke.

“I guess that might have knocked us a little, but there’s no excuses. When you go into the next game you’ve got to be ready and we weren’t at it.”

Meanwhile, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has delivered a timely tonic to claret and blue counterpart Martin O’Neill with the message that Villa will get better even if they miss out on the top four.

Ferguson, whose United team inflicted O’Neill’s fourth straight defeat in Sunday’s pulsating match at Old Trafford, predicted Villa’s improvement by tipping O’Neill’s men to challenge for the Champions League spots back in August.

“Nothing comes easy in this game as Martin would probably agree after seeing his high hopes of a spot in next season’s Champions League slip back a little,” said Ferguson.

“He won’t be happy with that because he’s a winner, it’s the nature of the man, but no matter how the season ends for them he has done a fantastic job at Villa.

“He launched a rebuilding programme when he first arrived and there is a lot of youth in his squad.

“He is as close as anyone to breaking into the top four and they will get better. He has a team for the future,” added Ferguson.